Article appearing in The San Diego Union-Tribune, Thursday December 7, 2000, p. A1.
Reproduced with the goal of maintaining the spelling, grammar and punctuation as it appeared in the original newspaper article.

A Place in history

San Diegan thought radar indicated our B17s, not Japanese raiders

By James Hebert
Staff Writer

The sun climbed. The ocean Called. It was a fine Hawaiian morning, and Kermit Tyler was ready to go surfing.

A young lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, Tyler was just finishing up on a four-hour shift at an aircraft tracking center in Oahu.

It had been a quiet morning. Just one small matter of a call, some 50 minutes earlier, from two privates training at a new radar station on the island's north end. They reported seeing a large blip on their screen.

Tyler had pondered that information. Must be our own B-17s winging in from the States, he surmised at the time. Nothing too unusual.

After all, hadn't he heard Hawaiian music playing on the radio as he was driving to work before dawn? And hadn't a bomber-pilot buddy told him that whenever Hawaiian music was played all night, it was so the B-17s could home in on the signal?

And the sun climbed. And the ocean called. And at Waikiki Beach, Tyler's surfboard awaited.

"A few minutes after 8," he recalls, "I thought, well, my shift is over. So I stepped outside (the tracking center), looked over to the west, and saw some puffs of smoke. It looked like some planes were practicing dive-bombing."

It was no practice. "It was," Tyler says now, "a marvelously planned, well-coordinated, simultaneous attack. They hit everything at once."

Tyler never made it to the beach that day. A war got in the way.

On a date that still lives in infamy -- Dec. 7, 1941 -- Tyler was to be saddled with a certain infamy himself, courtesy of four little words he had uttered to those radar operators.

"Don't worry about it."

Kermit Tyler is 87 now. He still surfs, as he has at least once every year in the past 50. A nerve disease has slowed him, and Tyler limps a bit as he moves about the College Area home he shares with his wife, Marian.

When he settles into a chair and begins telling of that long-ago morning in Hawaii, it's with a practiced detachment. Tyler has told this tale many times over the past 59 years -- to reporters, to congressional panels, to veterans, to friends.

In front of him, prominent atop a bookshelf, is an American flag, folded into a triangle and snugged in a plastic case.

The flag was presented to him after he spoke in Hawaii last December, on the anniversary of the Japanese attack that ushered the United States into World War II. It

Continued from page A1
Radar blip brought him role in history

is, Tyler says, one of his most treasured possessions.

Behind him, almost out of sight, is a framed photograph of the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. That is the place where he gave the speech. That is also where the remains of more that 1,000 sailors lie, 38 feet below the surface, in the hulk of a battleship shattered by a Japanese bomb.

Tyler has had six decades to meditate on that long-ago day -- on what might have happened if he had entertained the possibility, however remote, that the radar blip represented a swarm of enemy warplanes.

"Things might have been a little different," he reflects. He pauses for a moment. "(The Japanese) might not have lucked out. They might not have had a bomb go down and blow up the Arizona.

"It's possible. Who knows?"

No one ever will know, of course.

But there is one important thing to know about Kermit Tyler. He believed than, and he believes now, that he made the only decision he could have at the time.

"When people know the whole story, why, I think they realize it was a common-sense decision, considering the state of alert, my previous training, and everything involved," he says.

That belief has allowed him to make peace with his role in the tragedy, to shrug off the millstone of infinite "what ifs."

"If I really felt that I was the one..." Tyler's voice trails off, and he starts over.

"If I had taken action, the action be to call Maj. (Kenneth) Bergquist (his superior officer), I don't think it would have materially affected the situation."

It's only been relatively recently, it seems, that others have come to share that viewpoint.

"He's one of the most misunderstood characters in history," says Daniel Martinez, chief historian at the Arizona Memorial, who took up Tyler's case and invited him to speak in Hawaii in 1991 and last year.

"But he has shouldered it well. He's a great guy."

In 1971, Tyler and his family were invited to the premier of "Tora! Tora! Tora!," a film that purported to document the true story of Pearl Harbor.

There, he saw himself portrayed as a carousing, cocktail-swilling buffoon, staying up late the night before the attack, then blithely dismissing the alerts from the radar operators just before the attack begins.

"He didn't say he was horrified, but I'm sure he was," says Martinez. "Can you imagine a man sitting there with his wife and kids and having to watch that?"

Yet if that indignity bothered him -- indeed, if the events of that morning in 1941 have dogged him ever since -- Tyler is reluctant to say so.

"No, I guess I might have gone along decades at a time without being affected," he says.

He will admit that he's happy not to be portrayed in next year's "Pearl Harbor," a big screen drama. (It will feature some other local Pearl harbor survivors as extras.)

"The last time, they kind of, well, made me look pretty bad," he says.

But the scapegoating of Kermit Tyler started long before "Tora! Tora! Tora!"

In the wake of Pearl Harbor, the military's catastrophic lack of readiness was perhaps too painful for people to admit. Easier to point fingers at one man who, so the story goes, could have prevented the disaster all by himself.

"In about 1946, when they first declassified the (military) reports, well, a lot of people thought they'd found the one who caused Pearl Harbor," Tyler says.

"It was me, you see?"


He wasn't even supposed to be there that day.

Tyler, a pilot assigned to the 78th Pursuit Squadron, had been to the aircraft information center at Fort Shafter only once before, on the previous Wednesday.

The center was the place from which fighters would be dispatched in case of enemy attack, or to locate planes in trouble. It fielded reports from six radar stations around the island, still essentially in the experimental stage.

Tyler had been scheduled to work again on Saturday, Dec. 6. But there was a last-minute change.

"I don's know who engineered that -- someone who wanted to be off Sunday morning instead of Saturday," he says.

So shortly after 3 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 7, he drove from his beach house on Oahu's north shore to Fort Shafter, listening to the radio play Hawaiian music, making a mental note that some American B-17s would likely be winging in.

His task at the center was vague enough. As Tyler hater told a Navy inquiry, "I had no specified duties, either written or oral -- just to report there for duty."

But at 7 a.m., everyone cleared out. It was just Tyler and a switchboard operator. No one around with any training at all in interpreting radar plots or ordering planes to take to the air.

The radar stations around the island also had folded up promptly at 7 -- save for one, at Opana on the island's north end.

It was there, at 7:02, that Privates Joseph Lockard and George Elliott spotted the large blip on their scope.

They watched for a few minutes, thinking the machine might be malfunctioning. (Radar was still in its infancy.)

Then around 7:10, they called the information center. The operator put Tyler on the line.

"I knew the equipment was pretty new," says Tyler. "The people were brand-new. In fact, the guy who was on the scope (Elliott), who first detected the planes, it was the first time he'd ever sat at the scope.

"So I figured they were pretty green and had not had any opportunity to view a flight of B-17s coming in. That added to everything else. Common sense said, well, these are the B-17s.

"I thought awhile, too. I didn't really jump at it. I just thought, 'well in there anything else I oughta do about this. Well, no.'

"So I told them, 'Don't worry about it.'"

Bess Tittle, a writer now living in San Diego, was in Hawaii that morning. Her late husband, Capt. Norman Tittle, was the radar operators' commanding officer.

"You've go to put the thing in context," she says. "They (Lockard and Elliott) were two young kids. They were practicing, and what's more, even if Tyler had made a call to somebody, I'm not sure who he would have made it to, or what they would have done with it.

"They might have gotten a few more planes in the air. But that might have just meant a few more deaths."

Lockard also did not mention to Tyler that the radar plot appeared to indicate more that 50 planes.

"If he had said that number of planes," says Tyler "it would have made me pause."

The other huge factor, of course -- and the key reason the attack was so devastating -- was that even though tensions with Japan were high, no one seemed to expect a raid on Hawaii.

"We were on a sabotage alert," recalls Tyler. "The population had a very large percentage of Japanese. (Army Gen. Walter Short's) idea was to protect against sabotage.

"For that reason, the planes in my squadron were wingtip to wingtip, waiting to be destroyed. No one had any inkling that we might be attacked by air."

Bess Tittle recalls mailing a letter to her brother at West Point in New York, telling him that "the Japanese would be crazy to attack us."

The letter, she says, reached him Dec. 7.

And Tyler proved right about one thing. Just as the Japanese planes reached Oahu, so did a flight of American B-17s -- to a very hostile welcome.


"He had a clear conscience. He didn't feel bad about it. He did what he was supposed to do. The people running things in Hawaii at that time were absolute morons."

So says Charles MacDonald, Tyler's housemate and surfing buddy in Hawaii, who went on to become an ace combat pilot. He now lives in Florida.

Tyler, too, led a distinguished military career, flying missions in the Pacific and eventually retiring in 1961 as a lieutenant colonel.

He studied toward a master's degree at San Diego State. Had a fruitful career in real estate. Raised four kids with his wife Marian. Surfed. Played tennis. And tried to put the war behind him.

When Martinez tracked him down and asked him to speak at the 50th anniversary in 1991. "Kermit was very reluctant to come. He had been ridiculed in the press. He had been ridiculed in the film. Hell, he had even been ridiculed by some of his fellow veterans," Martinez says.

"I said, 'Kermit, you really need to come, because you need to tell your side of the story.'''

It went well. Martinez says Tyler even won over a couple of angry Pearl Harbor survivors who had protested his appearance. "They came up afterward with tears in their eyes," Martinez recalls. "They said Kermit, 'We never knew.'"

And when Tyler returned to speak last year, "He was just mobbed," Martinez says. "Everyone really extended their hearts to him.

"He has a certain dignity," Martinez adds, "and he even extends that dignity to the people who persecuted him."

At his home, Tyler is poring through a memory book his daughter, Julie, made after the family traveled to Hawaii for his speech last year.

It was "one of the greatest weeks of our lives," Tyler says.

Among the places they visited was a small monument that commemorates the old Opana radar station. The wording on a plaque recounts the events of that day 59 years ago and Tyler's role in them.

"His assessment was based on deductive reasoning with limited information and two days' experience," the plaque reads. "What would you have done?'

Tyler gazes at a photo of the plaque. He recites those last words.

"Yeah. That's the question," he says.

There was one other thing he did during that visit. Something he never got a chance to do on that morning in 1941. Something he "couldn't stand not to" do this time.

The sun climbed. The ocean called.

Kermit Tyler went surfing.